A psychoanalytical reading of "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë

Freudian approach to the main characters

Essay, 2022

15 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Psychoanalytical Reading of Wuthering Heights

Freudian Approach to the Main Characters

Emily Brontë's gothic novel Wuthering Heights is one of the controversial novels in English literature; it addresses society's values and moral views in the Victorian era. It was written in 1847 and published one year after her death. However, Brontë's only novel still captures the interest of readers and stirs discussions among critics. Brontë addresses love, hate, revenge, classes, and narcissism; she seems to carry out ‘the task of filtering the genuine or passionate elements of love and hate from their destructive imitations,' as Williams states.1 This novel is ‘in the same ethical and moral tradition' as many other novels of the Victorian age, and ‘its criticism of the society as fierce as Charlotte Brontë's and Dickens'.'2 With her sisters Charlotte and Anne,Emily added greatness to the Victorian novel. Harold Bloom suggests that the Brontë sisters' contribution to Victorian fiction is a kind of inventing ‘a relatively new genre, a kind of northern romance.'3 The story of the novel revolves around two households: the Earnshaws living at Wuthering Heights and the Lintons, who live at Thrushcross Grange. The polarities depicted in the novel contrast harmony and destruction, gentleness and cruelty, chaos and order, and ‘the Sexual' and ‘the Spiritual,' as Prentis calls it.4

In fact, much has been written about the novel from different insightful perspectives, and several critical and analytical concepts, theories, and approaches have been applied. Yet, for a novel whose major themes, hysteria, fear of intimacy, repression, love, and hate,I would suggest that viewing Wuthering Heights through the lens of psychoanalysis is one of the fundamental approaches that enable us to dive deep into the characters' personalities and gain an insight into their state of mind. Psychoanalysis is one of the modern theories used in English literature, and it tells a narrative that ‘is nearly always about 'us' and our fears, desires, anxieties attachments.and so on.'5 Tyson states that ‘psychoanalytic concepts have become part of our everyday life, and therefore psychoanalytic thinking should have the advantages of familiarity.'6 This approach goes back primarily to its founder Sigmund Freud, who, as one of the most influential psychologists of his time, succeeded in making a breakthrough in the field of psychology. In this essay, I will apply the psychoanalytic approach to Wuthering Heights, aiming to analyse the main characters of the novel using some aspects of Freud's psychoanalysis theory, namely fear of abandonment, repression, and Oedipus complex. Moreover, I will discuss how the environment influences the behaviour of the characters throughout the novel. But before starting the analysis, I would firstly give a brief introduction to the theory of psychoanalysis and then introduce the aspects used in this essay.

The psychoanalysis theory was developed by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who developed a famous topographical model of the human mind whereby he described the features of the mind and how it works. Freud distinguishes the conscious from the unconscious using an analogy of an iceberg to describe the three levels of the human mind, which are ‘either conscious, preconscious or unconscious.'7 Freud states that the conscious mind is aware of present perceptions, and it is seen as the top of the iceberg. We ‘receive conscious information from the inside of the body.'8 For instance, you decide to get something to eat when you are hungry. The preconscious level lies between the conscious and unconscious; it comprises memories and knowledge that can be brought into consciousness through active attention. Everything that can be actively remembered is preconscious, such as memories, experiences, people, and much more that cannot be accessed immediately but can only be brought back to mind after an active search. Lastly, the unconscious level of thinking is the deepest part of the iceberg that can not be ‘seen,' however it is only accessible through the effects of the consciousness processes. According to Freud, ‘the unconscious state plays a great part in the causation of neurotic disorders.'9 This is to say, feelings or desires repressed from consciousness can cause many psychological reactions, for example, failures, dreams, and psychological disorders.

Furthermore, Freud points out that personality has three structures: the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id functions according to the pleasure principle, and it consists of instincts, which are an individual's reservoir of psychic energy, and ‘contains everything that is inherited, that is present at birth.'10 Different from the id, the ego operates according to the reality principle. In addition, it obeys the restrictions of the superego, and it ‘satisfies simultaneously the demands of the id, of the super­ego.'11 The last part of the psyche is the superego which, as Freud states, has one thing in common with the id that ‘they both represent the influences of the past.'12 Superego is the moral component of the personality. People begin to learn about society's rules and values at the age of five or six, and the children internalize these rules to form the superego. However, the superego continues to grow over time, providing the moral values by which the ego operates.

The psychoanalytic theory has several aspects, but only three are relevant in this essay: repression, fear of abandonment, and the Oedipus complex. Firstly, repression is a fundamental psychological defense mechanism; with its help, thoughts, feelings, and memories that trigger fear are pushed out of consciousness. According to Freud, ‘The impressions of early traumas. are either not translated into the preconscious or are quickly put back by repression into the id-condition'13 It is a kind of shifting from the ego, the consciously accessible part of the self, to the id, where the instincts and information that is difficult to access are stored. Moreover, repression is the unconscious suppression of instinctual needs, for example, sex drive, aggression drive, or somehow stressful impulse from the id like inferiority, guilt, shame, or fear.

Secondly, abandonment anxiety is the intense fear of being separated from beloved ones. People who have this type of anxiety are usually afraid that their beloved ones will never returnor something willhappen to them. Tyson points out that abandonment is either ‘emotional' when friends do not care about us or ‘physical' when a friend deserts us.14 People experience fear of abandonment in the early years of their childhood, and itremains felt throughout for along time. Freuddeclares that ‘anxiety in children is originally nothing other than an expression of the fact they are feeling the loss of the person they love.'15 Thatis to say, separation is the reason behind the fear of abandonment, and this will remainfelt throughout the lifetime.

Finally, Oedipus complex is a term that Sigmund Freud coined. According to Freud's theory, every male child goes through the so-called ‘oedipal' or ‘phallic phase,' which occurs for the first time between the age of three and five. Freud states that the ‘boy's sexual wishes in regard to his mother become more intense and his father is perceived as an obstacle to them; from this the Oedipus complex originates.'16 In this phase, the boy feels drawn to his mother and sees the father as the greatest competitor, while ‘the little girl analogously loves her father hates the betraying mother, who has failed to provide her with a penis.'17 In other words, the Oedipus complex develops during the early genital phase consisting of love for the opposite-sex parent in both sexes. Thus, the same-sex parent becomes a competitor and is treated with aversion and jealousy.

In Wuthering Heights, Brontë creates a world where almost everyone is abandoned by their beloved ones, either a mother, father, or lover. She describes the separation of Catharine from Heathcliff as the ‘greatest punishment.'18 However, some of the characters choose to leave on purpose to protect themselves from experiencing painful separation, Heathcliff, for example. Catherine appears for the first time in the novel and Lockwood's dream as an abandoned child mourning for being left for so long. She begs to be allowed into the house, claiming that ‘it is twenty years [...] twenty years.' She has ‘been a waif for twenty years,' crying, ‘Let me in!'19 Catharine was left alone since her mother died and her brother left her for college. In addition, her father couldn't give her enough love to avoid the feeling of being abandoned and lonely. He said to her, ‘Nay, Cathy,' [...] ‘I cannot love thee; thou'rt worse than thy brother. Go, say thy prayers, child, and ask God's pardon. I doubt thy mother and I must rue that we ever reared thee!'20 It isa painful experience for her; It is another slap in Catherine's face being abandoned emotionally but this time byher father. However, sucha painful emotional experience makes Catherine learn to protect herself by distancing herself from others. Her father's statement ‘made her cry, at first; and then, being repulsed continually hardened her.'21 After spending five weeks at Thrushcross, Catherine transforms from a small girl to a lady. Her manner attitudes changed dramatically. This transformation surprises even her brother Handley asking her: ‘Why, Cathy, you are quite a beauty! I should scarcely have known you—you look like a lady now.'22


1 Meg Harris Williams, The Art of Personality in Literature and Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2018), p. 65.

2 ARNOLD SHAPIRO, ‘“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” AS A VICTORIAN NOVEL', Studies in the Novel, 1.3 (1969), 284-96 (p. 285).

3 Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, ed. by Harold Bloom, Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations, Updated ed (New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism, 2007), p. 1.

4 Barbara Prentis, The Bronte Sisters and George Eliot: A Unity of Difference (Springer, 1988), p. 99.

5 Andy Mousley, Renaissance Drama and Contemporary Literary Theory, 1. publ (Basingstoke: Macmillan [u.a.], 2000), p. 106.

6 Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd ed (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 11.

7 Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1964), xxiii, p. 160.

8 Freud, XXIII, p. 161.

9 Freud, XXIII, p. 161.

10 Freud, XXIII, p. 145.

11 Freud, XXIII, p. 146.

12 Freud, XXIII, p. 147.

13 Freud, xxiii, pp. 97-98.

14 Tyson, p. 16.

15 Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: The 1905 Edition, ed. by Philippe van Haute and Herman Westerink, trans. by Ulrike Kistner (London; New York: Verso, 2016), p. 105.

16 Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, ed. by James Strachey, trans. by Joan Riviere, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (New York: Norton, 1989), p. 27.

17 Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reader, ed. by Sue Vice (Cambridge, [Eng.]: Cambridge, MA, USA: Polity Press; Blackwell Pub, 1996), p. 20.

18 Brontë, p. 33.

19 Brontë, p. 20.

20 Brontë, p. 34.

21 Brontë, p. 34.

22 Brontë, p. 57.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


A psychoanalytical reading of "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë
Freudian approach to the main characters
University of Leipzig
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wuthering, heights, emily, brontë, freudian
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Ibrahim Al Shaaban (Author), 2022, A psychoanalytical reading of "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1192776


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